Snuggling With Baby Penguins and Other Perks of Being a Wildlife Photographer

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Emperor penguins can survive in minus 50 degrees Celsius and 90 mph winds, but they enjoy a sunny day, too. (Photo: Sue Flood)

If you appreciate wild animals, you've probably already seen photographer Sue Flood's work. She has worked on some of the most impressive visual celebrations of wildlife, including "The Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" with Sir David Attenborough. She also contributed to the Disney nature movie, "Earth." Flood has won multiple awards in the International Photographer of the Year contest and prizes galore — so naturally she's also a member of National Geographic's Explorers Club, and has even met and been honored by the queen of England at Buckingham Palace for her contributions to photography. (Flood is Welsh.)

Flood's first book, "Cold Places," showcased polar people, wildlife and landscapes. Her latest endeavor is "Emperor: The Perfect Penguin" and features her favorite bird and its Antarctic home. It took Flood nine years to put together the images for this newest book, which includes all the photos you see in this article.

Since Flood has such an enviable career, I had to ask her about her work, her new book — and penguins, of course.

Four emperor penguins standing in a row, with blue skies behind them.
Emperor penguins walk in a row, photographed by Sue Flood for her new book on the birds. (Photo: Sue Flood)

MNN: You spent nine years putting this book together. Is that because of the difficult conditions for shooting, challenges with the light, or other reasons?

Sue Flood: When I started photographing emperor penguins, I had no idea that I would end up doing a book about them. I started photographing them in 2008, and after several successful seasons, and getting some nice penguin images, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to do a photo book. They are very difficult animals to get to see as there are only limited ways to travel to see them.

So it was a project that evolved gradually, when I felt I had enough images. Of course, the weather is challenging in these locations, but I didn’t want to simply feature pictures of penguins in lovely sunny conditions; I wanted to show how harsh their environment can be so there are birds in blizzards, covered in snow, etc.

A community of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic.
A community of emperor penguins in the Antarctic. (Photo: Sue Flood)

What did you learn about penguins that someone who knows the science of them or may have observed penguins at an aquarium wouldn't know?

It’s not so much what I learnt about penguins but the experiences I had by taking time to observe them over several weeks in the wild, which wouldn’t be possible in captivity. Of course, it’s a real luxury to spend time in and near the colony so that you can watch the birds coming and going to and fro, crossing the ice to go to sea to feed themselves and their chicks.

One memorable experience involved lying on the ice, with my eyes closed, listening to the chicks calling their parents for food. I actually dropped off to sleep, wrapped up in my big warm duvet jacket. When I awoke a few minutes later, there was a little penguin chick lying right next to me with its little flipper on top of my glove! It had come and snuggled next to me to keep out of the wind. What an experience!

An Emperor penguin pair with a baby.
An emperor penguin pair with a baby. (Photo: Sue Flood)

Wow! What's your advice to all the amateur wildlife photographers out there who dream of being you?

Well, it’s an absolutely wonderful job, but there is a lot of competition to do it, as you can imagine. My advice would be to try to develop your own style and to know your equipment, to work really hard and also to create your own opportunities. That’s what I did! You have to be persistent without being a pest. I’d also recommend entering photography competitions because if you get placed, it’s a very good way of getting your name out there.

I’ve lost track of the times people say, "Oh you’re so lucky to do your job!" As I always tell them, the harder I work, the luckier I get!

A juvenile Emperor penguin with a heart marking on it's chest feathers.
A juvenile emperor penguin with a unique marking on its chest. (Photo: Sue Flood)

How difficult was it to select the final images to include in this book?

Actually, it wasn’t too difficult to plow through literally thousands of my emperor penguin images, as I have certain images which were particular favorites and was also able to shoot new material on my latest trip. I worked with a fabulous designer, my friend Simon Bishop, who helped me select images. My husband Chris also has a great eye, so when I was deliberating between images I would also ask him for his opinion.

Adult emperor penguin at the Gould Bay colony.
An adult emperor penguin at the Gould Bay colony in Antarctica. (Photo: Sue Flood)

Do you plan on returning to photograph penguins again? Or have you moved onto another animal or area?

As I type this, I am on my way to the Antarctic for approximately the 54th time! I won’t be seeing emperor penguins on this trip, but will see other penguin species on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. I love working in Antarctica and never tire of seeing the spectacular scenery and wildlife of this incredible wilderness, so, yes, I’ll definitely be photographing penguins again! And again.

However, I do get to warm up occasionally, and this year will see me taking trips to Zambia, Botswana, the Galapagos and Tasmania, so it’s not all the polar regions!